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Machiavelli’s The Prince: The little book that shook the world

Few books have attracted so much controversy, commentary and debate over the last 500 years than Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. Written in the vernacular a few months after he was tortured and exiled from Florence in 1513, it is no more than 70 pages long and was never published in his lifetime. Interestingly, the name was given to the book by the publisher posthumously and was originally entitled De Principatibus (About Principalities). The original manuscript, if not a job application, was certainly an attempt to win favour with the Medici family, whom he was wrongly accused of trying to conspire against.

Frustratingly for Machiavelli, he was at the height of his intellectual powers, having spent the last 14 years as secretary to the Second Chancery. To not be permitted to return to Florence and instead forced to live in a farmhouse and in virtual poverty, must have been anguish for a man with boundless nervous energy. There is no evidence that the Medici even read the work and Machiavelli’s disappointment must have turned into bitterness as the initial months in isolation turned into years. His letter to his friend Francesco Vettori of the 10 December 1513 gives us an insight into what an ordinary day in his life would have looked like, a mix of mundane daily activities, boredom and contemplation. It is my favourite letter of the Renaissance and various versions are available online.

 “…I am living on my farm…I shall tell you about my life. I get up in the morning with the sun and go into one of my woods that I am having cut down; there I spend a couple of hours inspecting the work of the previous day and kill some time with the woodsmen who always have some dispute on their hands either among themselves or with their neighbours…Upon leaving the woods, I go to a spring; from there, to one of the places where I hang my birdnets. I have a book under my arm: Dante, Petrarch, or one of the minor poets like Tibullus, Ovid, or some such…Then I make my way along the road toward the inn, I chat with passersby, I ask news of their regions, I learn about various matters, I observe mankind: the variety of its tastes, the diversity of its fancies. By then it is time to eat; with my household I eat what food this poor farm and my minuscule patrimony yield. When I have finished eating, I return to the inn, where there usually are the innkeeper, a butcher, a miller, and a couple of kilnworkers. I slum around with them for the rest of the day playing cricca and backgammon…When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus, in which I delve as deeply as I can into the ideas concerning this topic, discussing the definition of a princedom, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired, how they are retained, and why they are lost. And if ever any whimsy of mine has given you pleasure, this one should not displease you. It ought to be welcomed by a prince, and especially by a new prince; therefore I am dedicating it to His Magnificence Giuliano…”

 (Translation. J.B Atkinson & David Sices, Machiavelli and his Friends: Their Personal Correspondence, pp. 262-65 (1996)).

Unfortunately, he would never live in his beloved Florence again or work at the heart of the city’s administration. But luckily for posterity, he turned to writing. Whilst this is not his only contribution to literature since Machiavelli wrote a number of other books and plays, The Prince is his most famous work. Of course, he could not have known that this “little work”, as he called it, would have such a profound impact on Western political thought. It is a very simple book to read and is neither verbose nor pompous. It can hardly be described as a history book, for although it is littered with references to famous ancient figures, it is essentially a contemporary account of the political state of Italy (then a collection of separate city-states). If Machiavelli had a political purpose in mind in writing the book, as I believe he did, it was an aspiration for the unification of Italy under a single strong leader to liberate Italy from the foreign ‘barbarians’, something that would not happen for another 400 years. Here he was far ahead of his times.

The book did not achieve notoriety (or rather, infamy) until well after Machiavelli’s death. Whilst its circulation was aided by the new invention of the printing press, still, it is quite remarkable that a book written in the vernacular Italian (rather than in Latin), and which therefore had to be translated for a wider readership, would have gained such prominence across Europe. Published in print five years after his death in 1532 and nineteen years after it was first written, it was banned by the Pope in 1559.

For a book that was not intended for publication beyond limited circulation in manuscript, The Prince has undoubtedly become one of the most influential and controversial books ever written. What made it so and what can we learn from this? Here are my thoughts.

1. Machiavelli challenged conventional thinking of the day, not just Christian doctrine but that of his ancient and classical predecessors. This was a radical shift for the time and would have promoted wide interest in the book. It therefore had all the ingredients of a modern best-seller.

2. He was clearly not afraid of being highly controversial (although some may say he was simply being realistic). Indeed, he must have known that even the least sensitive among his readers would find some of his writing shocking. Unsurprisingly, its content became no less disturbing over the course of the next 500 years, which probably accounts for why the book has not faded from public memory. Of course, Machiavelli’s writing cannot be judged by modern standards. After all, this book was written as a survival guide for ‘princes’ (rulers) who today would be condemned as ruthless dictators. But even today the book is not without relevance in the world of modern political and corporate intrigue and the word ‘Machiavellian’ is still a commonly used adjective.

3. Machiavelli did not lie idle when faced with the most abject conditions and instead turned to writing based on his wide experiences. I wonder how many other potentially influential thinkers in history have denied posterity the chance to read their work by not having the same mental attitude.

4. It would not be difficult to see The Prince as a piece of opportunistic writing. The book might never have been written if Machiavelli had not been exiled and thereafter summoned the courage to send it to the Medici, to whom he dedicated the work. In this sense, he was following his own advice to his imaginary ‘prince’ – be bold when an opportunity presents itself.

5. The book found a ready and influential audience among rulers of the age, humanist writers of the Renaissance and the growing number of critics of the Papacy. A copy, for instance, is said to have been presented by Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII of England and influenced the King’s decision to break with Rome.

6. I read the book today in a modern context as advice on how to succeed by being bold and innovative, on risk-taking and on when to be ruthless. The underlying message in the book is therefore one that resonates through time.

7. There is no doubt that The Prince is based on Machiavelli’s broad experience in diplomacy as a former senior official of Florence. He was therefore not writing as a historian or a playwright but as an experienced adviser in statecraft. In the turbulent and uncertain times in which Machiavelli lived such a book would have attracted the intense interest of contemporaries beyond mere curiosity.

8. The old notion of the ‘virtuous prince’ as the defender of a strict moral code based on Christian values was detached from the brutal realities of the time. Instead, Machiavelli was just brave enough to write about what was uppermost in all rulers’ minds, namely their own security and longevity.

9. Whilst Machiavelli doubtless would have bemoaned that he was the victim of misfortune (as indeed his life events show), I cannot help thinking that as far as the book itself was concerned, ‘luck’ played a part in his work becoming a sensation. Ironically, fortune (fortuna) is a key concept in The Prince.

My lasting impression of Niccolò Machiavelli is of a Renaissance Man seeking to break free from the shackles of his Medieval past. In so doing, he awakened Western political thought but was himself condemned to shackles by succeeding generations.

 It is a matter of conjecture what Machiavelli would have made of the book’s notoriety and the harsh criticism levelled against him ever since. Probably he would have been surprised on the first account but almost certainly would not have been troubled on the second account. It is not difficult to imagine Machiavelli delivering half a smile and saying “do I now have your attention?”

This article is dedicated to my son Matthew on the occasion of our visit to Florence. To walk the streets of Florence is to walk in the shadows of Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Da Vinci and no City captures better than Florence the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.

Nigel Feetham is a partner at Hassans (a Gibraltar law firm) and Visiting Professor at Nottingham Law School, Not­tingham Trent University. Nigel is the author and co-author of a number of law books. He is also fascinated by all things related to the Italian Renaissance.

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